Julia Briggs’s new biography of Woolf

I went to hear Julia Briggs talk about her new biography of Woolf on Friday night at Barnes & Noble on 82nd & Broadway. (Curtis Sittenfeld reviewed the book on Sunday in the Times: she liked it.) I arranged to meet Mark and Vara, old friends and esteemed Woolfians, in the W-section of Barnes and Noble at 5:30 for the 7:00 reading. From there, we planned to get a drink and return in time for the reading. Strangely, at 5:30 there were already eight or nine people seated in the folding chairs, awaiting Julia’s arrival. Devoted Woolfians though we are, an hour and a half of waiting in a folding chair has no appeal. We headed over to Amsterdam for a cozier chat.

The talk was well-attended and interesting but it was definitely—and rightly—pitched to the general audience for whom the book is written. I love Julia—she is a great scholar and teacher and incredibly generous with her students and, more remarkably, with people like me who meet as a friend of a student. Years ago, it was Julia who listened patiently to my nascent plans for a book and said, “well, if you’re going to do Woolf and the Romantics, you have to do Byron, don’t you? That’s the influence that’s really worth figuring out.” Without knowing anything about Byron beyond gossip, I knew immediately that she was right and that, I would have to go beyond Woolf’s easy-to-comprehend love of Keats or even her more intellectual fondness for Coleridge. Anyone who reads here regularly will know that Byron is a bit of an obsession here at Fernham. I have Julia to thank.

The forty people there ranged from Jane Marcus, a grand-dame of American Woolf scholarship (She wrote Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy and Art and Anger among other things.) to dozens of middle-aged readers who love The Hours. There were about forty folks in all—a good turnout, I thought, for 7:00 on Friday night and a new biography of Woolf. The questions were sweet and not too annoying but they were far from academic: What did Woolf look like? Did she believe in God? What’s your favorite Woolf novel? Was she influenced by Sterne? By Henry James?

Before things got started, we waved at Jane, said hello, and then Mark and she conferred about official editing matters. When Mark rejoined us, he said “Jane wants to know if we’re all coming over for a drink after the reading. I said you probably couldn’t, Anne.” What? I was all over that. Needless to say, I went, we went, and the hour of wine & cheese and cheesecake with Jane and Julia and a few others beat the reading by miles!